In the Suburbs, a Walkable Future Emerges


If, as Samuel Johnson once said, “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” appeals to culture war may be the last refuge of those seeking to guarantee a future of car-oriented sprawl in the face of both rising consumer demand for walkable neighborhoods and all common sense. Tinfoil-hat paranoia about bike lanes as a harbinger of One World Government, accusations that train service is a ruse intended to turn us all into collectivists, warnings that the secret agenda of smart growth types is to make us all live in Manhattan, references to a “war on the car” or a “war on suburbs” – all of these and more have been used to turn discussion of our transportation future into an “us versus them” battle.

But when you go beneath the surface, what you often find is that issues of transportation and land use conform less and less to traditional divides. In recent years, for example, business interests have emerged as key advocates for public transportation in cities across the country. Smart developers have come to realize that there is money to be made in giving the public what they increasingly want: housing in walkable neighborhoods.

Chris Leinberger of the George Washington University School of Business (and more organizational affiliations than I can count) has recently published a report that breaks down another old division: the idea that walkable development is for cities alone. Leinberger takes as his field of study the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and provides us with a taxonomy of the many types of development that are turning D.C. into a model of walkable urban living.

Leinberger identifies 43 “Walkable Urban Places” or “WalkUPs” in the D.C. area that are striking in their diversity. Leinberger breaks those 43 places down into six categories of neighborhoods: three in urban settings and three in traditional suburban settings.  Anyone who has been to D.C. in recent years can attest to the increasing vitality of the city itself, but Leinberger focuses equal attention on the “town centers” and revitalized strip developments on the city’s periphery, showing how the D.C. area is succeeding in converting formerly car-oriented forms of development to new, walkable forms. He gives a special shout-out to Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, which is in the midst of a dramatic conversion from “edge city” to walkable urban center, and notes how, as a result of the success of walkable development in other nearby suburbs, Tyson’s Corner’s “NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard) Became YIMBYs (Yes in My Backyard).”

There are two important points here. The first is that there are no longer clear lines – if there ever were – between “city” and “suburb.” That makes life hell for demographers trying to trace the degree to which Americans are seeking out less car-oriented places to live, but it’s good news for Americans who now have greater access to a greater array of housing choices.

Second, the remake of many of these suburban areas would not be happening were it not for a massive public investment in the form of D.C.’s Metrorail system. It was the creation of the Metro that gave impetus to the first wave of suburban town center in Arlington, Virginia, in the 1980s, and it is the planned extension to Tyson’s Corner that is fueling much of the development there.

Leinberger says that, when it comes to walkable development, “[w]hat was perceived as a niche market is becoming the market.” The potential of that market to develop, however, will be limited unless the nation can invest more of its transportation funding in the types of public transportation infrastructure that can act as seeds for new walkable urban places. Let’s hope that our leaders – suburban and urban, and on all sides of the traditional transportation-policy divide – can transcend the current inertia in transportation policy to make those investments a reality.